The CEO’s Role in Employer Branding

WRITTEN BY: Jörgen Sundberg

Should CEOs build an active presence on social media? How much can their online behavior influence a company’s reputation and success? And what are the most common mistakes that CEOs make on social media, that should be avoided? I caught up with Dr. Leslie Gaines-Ross, who is the Chief Reputation Strategist at Weber Shandwick to find out how CEOs can build and control their company’s reputation, by being social.

Listen to the interview on iTunes, SoundCloud or keep reading for a summary

What challenges do CEOs face with social media?

Well, indeed there are many challenges regarding being social. It’s something we started looking at in 2010, because I realized this is interesting. Some CEOs are on social media, and not many at the time in 2010, but it’s doubled since then. So there are many more social CEOs than there used to be, and we’ve done a lot of research in the area. When we asked them, “What’s keeping you back? What are the obstacles in your way for engaging in social media and using the internet and using it as it’s been built,” we got responses such as “Well, we don’t do that in our region,” or “It’s not typical in our industry,” or “We don’t see the return on investment,” “No one’s asking me to do it.”

And then certainly the topic comes up, it’s too risky, there are too many risks, I don’t have enough time, I travel too much. Those are the basic, the most often mentioned obstacles for a CEO to be social. There were two CEOs that I spoke to over time, who had a great answer to that “It’s too risky for me” response, and one CEO said to me, “Well, just think about the risk of not using social media, not communicating on social media, not being in the conversation.” I thought that was a pretty insightful response.

The other one said to me, and I thought this was good, he said that “That’s the job of a CEO, to manage risk, to maximize the upside and minimize the downside.” So there are some answers when CEOs say, “It’s not for me. It’s not for my company. It’s not for my region, not for my industry.”

What are the steps to becoming a social CEO?

Well, one of the things that I have learned in just being so interested in this topic, and I’m going to give you some step-by-step ideas. But I think it’s interesting to note that you can be a social CEO by just being really engaged online on your company’s intranet. Some companies have very robust intranets, or they have these internal communications platforms, and those are another way to be a social CEO. So being a social CEO is not just being out there on the traditional social media platforms, but you can be social by being active internally.

But regarding a step-by-step approach:

  1. I think you have to, for a CEO or any top executive, to begin by listening, just spending time on the platforms and just conducting social listening, getting regular reports on what’s being said about your company or your brands on social media, so you get accustomed to it, and just being very observant on how important social media is. The first step is to start listening.
  2. Then we often advise CEOs to start slowly, and that’s trying a soft launch. That is let’s say you decide you want to be on LinkedIn or you want to be on Twitter, or you want to be on Facebook. So work with your communications or marketing team, and they can set up an off-the-grid simulation so you can get used to it. See what happens and what does it look like and what might it look like when people respond? Just off the grid, try it that way. Another idea is, by starting slowly, is start with an internal blog only on your intranet, and see what that’s like.
  3. But I think one of the most important steps for becoming social for a CEO, is to define why you’re doing it. What is your business case for using social media? Once you answer that, then you really can easily engage, because you’ll know why you’re doing it. You’ll know who you’re trying to engage.

For example, are you interested in just reaching customers and communicating with them, or employees or vendors, or increasing your customer loyalty, or generating new leads, or raising brand awareness? Once you know why you’re doing it, then you can much more easily pick the platform, much more easily know, how do you want to go about communicating? Some CEOs just want to share news and information, and there are CEOs who want to talk about new launches and so forth, and some are just all about attracting talent. I think that those are some of the most basic step-by-step reasons or ways to go about being a social CEO.

The other thing that I would add though is, you might want to also start by being pretty selective and just using one social platform, and see how that feels. I think a few years ago, back in 2010 when we first started understanding social CEOs, there was this mad dash for everyone. You had to be on everything. It was like no one was selective. It was just you had to be on every platform.

But today I think it’s important to realize which platform is best for you, and one easy way to start is by using video. I think video is just so custom-built for CEOs to communicate, and it’s easy to do, it’s conversational. I think it might be an easy way to start by either putting it on your intranet or your company website and then maybe your corporate YouTube. So video is another easy way because it’s so short, and you can easily edit it, you can be in your office. I think that’s another straightforward way to go about it

Should you start on a public platform like LinkedIn or an internal one like Yammer?

I’m a huge believer in CEOs communicating internally, to start when it comes to everything. If you don’t have the support of your workforce, it seems strange, in a way, if you think about, that you’re all of sudden going to be communicating externally and focusing on that, and not communicating internally. Indeed figuring out a way to communicate internally is essential, whether it’s Yammer or Jive or Slack or Facebook at Work, which we at Weber Shandwick are testing out now. I think it’s critical to communicate internally and be social that way.

When it comes to the external platforms, I think that there’s a tremendous variety, for different reasons. There’s LinkedIn; you can have a blog, you can use Facebook, you can use Twitter. I think it just depends on like we said, who do you want to reach, how much time do you have, where you want to appear, where are your peers, and where are your employees and your customers? I think making sure that you understand what your social media strategy is and has done a pretty good competitive analysis, then you’ll probably be able to figure out which of these is best for you. I think a lot of CEOs start with LinkedIn, it’s almost like an entry network and then move onto other platforms.

What are the differences between female and male executives?

There aren’t that many females CEOs in the first place, unfortunately. Fortune Magazine comes out with the most influential women in business globally. So we took a look at those women, their very top executives and CEOs, see how social they were. And 76% of them were engaging socially, which falls in line with our analysis of Fortune 50 CEOs.

Women executives are using social media as much as men, and as much as the top executives in the world. They tend to appear and be featured on their websites, on YouTube, social networks. One of the things on my commentary on that is that for years…I’ve been in the business world for a long time. Men have narrated most of business, and now with women having access to social media, it’s exciting to think that women will be finding their voice and being able to express themselves using social media. It’s a great way to build reputation, a great way to create visibility. I think it’s terrific, and it’s good to see that women are using as much as men in the leadership domain.

What mistakes do you see CEOs making on social media?

I think it’s important to test it out, to make sure that before you begin, that you’ve vetted with your marketing, communications people, your legal counsel, that you tell your board that you’re going to be using social media. So that’s the first step, and usually, all that’s in place anyhow. The reason you want to be in touch with your legal counsel, your IR people, is to make sure you don’t disclose any material information.

But I think CEOs have to realize, and I meant to say this before, is, first of all, you have to develop a thick skin when you go into social media because people say things that you might consider offensive or uncivil or rude. So you have to be prepared for that, and you have to not get yourself into a catfight on social media just because someone says something.

So that’s something you want to be aware of, and CEOs shouldn’t take it personally. The whole point of using social media is to hear what your customers are saying about your company and your brand, and you should be interested in hearing that and not take it too personally, which I know is hard. But yes there have been examples of companies, there’s an example of a company that certainly, after the big recession, the global financial meltdown, they had a Q&A on social media. One of the financial institutions, they did a hashtag, ask so and so, and certainly, they were pelted with abuse, because there was so much anger at the company post, the recession, the real meltdown.

The company wisely canceled the event and apologized. So indeed, timing is essential, thinking about when you’re going to do something and when you perhaps are going to go on social media or what you’re saying on social media, being aware of some of the trends and issues that are going on in the full world out there. I think just being more cognizant of what’s going on, like I said, in your company. If you’re going to have layoffs, you should be a little careful, though, talking about certain things on Twitter, let’s say, when you have all these layoffs. Employees are going to get unhappy.

I think it was just last weekend I found a Twitter post of a CEO, and he was holding a glass, like when you toast someone with Champagne, and he was talking about the company and toasting the New Years. It was something like that, and of course, there had just been layoffs, and employees were not too happy about that. CEOs make mistakes, like all of us, so sometimes it is helpful to have someone like a social media buddy at the company who can look and see what’s being said and what you’re saying if you’re not sure.

Is there a CEO that inspires you on social media?

Certainly, I think it’s been interesting looking at Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, the CEO of Facebook and how he has been communicating. He has town halls on his Facebook page. He’s very open and transparent. I have found that to be more of a humanizing effect on who he is and the company that he runs.

He talked about his wife’s three miscarriages before just having their baby. I think it’s only been fascinating to watch. It’s almost like watching someone, their journey through life as a business person and as a husband and a father. It’s an exciting way to provide insight into an individual and build company and CEO reputation.

Every year he adds a New Year’s resolution. I think last year it was about reading a book a week and talking about it. He had a book club. This New Year’s resolution was about building more artificial intelligence into his home. I find that interesting. It’s much more of a personal look into an individual.

What is the next big thing for CEOs and employer brand?

I think the next big thing is, as we touched on the idea of building more robust and readily usable employee networks where CEOS and executives and employees can all convene. I think that that’s something I see ahead. I also see video storytelling, as we talked about. I see more CEOs becoming publishers themselves in a way, building and posting their content on their sites, or on their social media platforms and their websites. I think that we’re going to see more of that in the future where CEOs become their content providers.

I think that we may see, we did in our analysis, where we looked at, and one of our social CEO reports, looked at social bios. Some CEOs have social bios. So when you go to their website, on the company website, you go into the About Us, and they have the leadership page. Instead of your traditional bio that looks like a resume, they have social bios. They’re multi-dimensional in the sense that they link to videos and texts of speeches and CEOs making news and spotlights and their Twitter feed and their Facebook feed.

I think that we may see more of those in the future. And the same with their other executives. It’s not just the CEO, but some of the other top leaders. I think we’ll see more CEOs making better use of visual content, not just here’s a link, but using visual content that goes along with the information that they’re sharing. I think that we’ll see more of that.

Those are some of the things that I see happening with CEOs. As I said, when we first started in 2010 looking at social CEOs, I think it was about 30 something percent of the top CEOs in the world was using any social media, or on their website, or using any video or anything. It was about 36%, to be precise. We’ve done this look every two years. In 2014, the last time we did it, it was 80%, so CEOs are entering this new era of being social, and it’s a good thing.

I wanted to add that one of the reasons for, that we’ve learned, the reasons for having a social CEO, and why it’s a good thing. Yes, there are risks, there’s no doubt about it. But there are also some excellent benefits. It’s a great way to share news and information about your company. It impacts your company’s reputation. It makes your company look like an excellent place to work. A transparent, open, accessible, good communicating company. It shows the company is innovative, knows how to use technology, and gives it a human face.

I think there are a lot of reasons. As I said, you have to be selective and figure out what works best for you and your company, what industry you’re in, if there are specific industry regulations that you need to abide by.

It’s going to be so commonplace. By 2020 it’ll be rare to probably find a CEO who has no footprint at all on the Internet.

Follow Leslie on Twitter@ReputationRx.


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